THE ILIAD OF HOMER
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
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Introduction to Richmond Lattimore's Iliad
RICHARD P. MARTIN STANFORD UNIVERSITY
THE TROJAN WAR IN TIME AND PLACE
The literature that has come to be called "Western" begins with a long poem about the siege of a great city on the coast of what is now Turkey by heroic warriors from Greece. Yet, in the early twelfth century bc—the time period in which this story is set—there were no identifiable concepts of "Western" and "Eastern" cultures (much less "Greece" or "Turkey" as nation-states). Even when the Iliad was composed, somewhere in the "archaic" period of Greek history between 750 and 550 BC, there seems to have been little concern among cultures bordering the Mediterranean to differentiate East from West: from Sicily to Sardis and beyond, trade goods, musical modes, stories, artistic styles, and people circulated and interacted in creative profusion.
It was early in the fifth century BC that attitudes changed. In 490 and again 480–79 BC, invasions by the massive forces of the expanding Persian empire (centered in modern-day Iran) were turned back by a ragtag coalition of Greek city-states, on Greek soil. This spectacular, unexpected victory was celebrated by Greeks of the ensuing "Classical" age through temple sculpture, murals, vase painting, oratory, and dramatic literature that proudly made verbal and visual analogies between the Persian wars of recent times and the heroic successes of the Trojan War. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the middle of the fifth century, attributes to Persian intellectuals (logioi: Histories 1.1) the view that the ancient expedition to bring home Helen of Sparta was the beginning of antagonism between Asia and Europe. But it is clear that Greeks of the historian's own time were thinking the same way.
The singular beauty and importance of our Iliad stand out starkly in contrast to such later, politicized interpretations of the story of Troy and to an insidious Orientalism that has its roots in Greek antiquity. It is not about a clash of civilizations, much less so a contest between evil and good. Unlike many a later epic (including Virgil's Aeneid), this poem does not deal with ethnic, national, religious, or ideological conflicts and aspirations. In fact, it is difficult to determine the poem's real protagonist: the Greek Achilleus and his victim, the Trojan Hektor, are attractive and repellent in equal degrees. Some would say Hektor is actually the more sympathetic character. The Iliad is about heroes as humans, and what constitutes humanity. Its enduring value lies in the poem's recognition that even the worst enemies are deeply, fundamentally the same—desirous of glory and immortality, while subject to pain and death. Its power—like that of so much Greek literature—comes from the realistic depiction of mortals as they gradually learn that they can never be gods. In this existential recognition, it transcends the anxieties of tribe or state.
The story of a war to take Troy, in other words, is primarily a backdrop for human concerns that fascinate audiences in any age. The Iliad would be just as compelling a piece of art even if Troy existed only in the imagination of poets. Nevertheless, through the centuries, the attractive power of the epic has been compounded for many readers by the dark mysteries that surround it. Did a Trojan War really take place? How did the poet Homer know of it? Did a man named Homer even exist? When, where, and how was the epic composed? How did it achieve such perfection and influence? In what follows, we shall explore briefly the answers that have been offered for these questions—though never totally agreed upon—while placing the Iliad in a series of relevant historical and cultural contexts.
First of all, it is important to realize that the Iliad is an Iron Age poem about an event supposed to have taken place in the Bronze Age. Historians in ancient Greece, working with family memories and temple records, came up with a range of dates for the Trojan War from 1184 BC (Eratosthenes), to around 1250 BC (Herodotus) to 1334 BC (Douris). More than four centuries thus elapsed between the latest traditional date given by the ancient Greeks themselves for the destruction of Troy and the earliest possible recording of the epic in written form—a longer gap than that which separates us from the time of Shakespeare's maturity. Therefore, the Iliad as we have it cannot be based directly on an eyewitness account, or even a reliable reminiscence from the poet's great-grandfather. It is not impossible that it ultimately derives from poems and stories originating with actual survivor tales, but the form in which we have it cannot possibly itself date to the twelft h or thirteenth century BC. To begin with, most of the linguistic forms in the Iliad come from a later period. By extension, the concerns of the poem are most likely not those of the original fighters at Troy but of a society—or multiple societies—generations later that looked back to the Trojan War as an important symbolic event, perhaps for the very foundation of their own communities. Even if the kernel of the Iliad was put into poetic form nearer to the time of the fall of Troy, in the intervening centuries before it achieved its final status the story was certainly subjected to all sorts of changes in length, expansiveness, and detail, through stylization, shift s of emphasis, and innovations in characterization and plot. Above all—as literary critics since Aristotle have acknowledged—the epic makes no attempt to narrate the whole story of a war against Troy, focusing instead on only a few days in the tenth and final year of the Greek siege against the city, and on a personal dispute (albeit one with vast consequences) within the ranks of the assembled Greek warriors. The poem's concentrated force relies on an audience that already knows most of the basic details about the struggle, an audience that has probably encountered many other versions of the tale of Troy, from tellers whose names we will never discover.
Greeks and Romans in ancient times had little doubt that there once existed a mighty city of Troy a few miles from the sea near the Hellespont, the narrow entrance to the Propontis, which leads in turn to the Black Sea and its resource-rich hinterlands. By the seventh century BC, a town was established by settlers of Greek ancestry on the ruins of an earlier site. It was called Ilion—a name used already in the epic for Troy, and the word from which the Iliad gets its name. In later ages, celebrities like Xerxes the king of Persia, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar visited the place, confident that they were gazing on the very soil where Hektor and Achilleus clashed and the towers of Troy were toppled. On his way to punish the mainland Greeks, in the spring of 480 BC, Xerxes dedicated a sacrifice of one thousand oxen to Athene of Ilion, while his sage-priests, the magi, poured offerings to "the heroes." The historian Herodotus (7.43) does not speculate on the royal motives, or whether the dead warriors thus honored were Greek or Trojans. What counts is that generations of military leaders associated their own deeds with those from the gloried past through their ostentatious tourism at the spot. The Romans had further reasons for venerating Troy, since it was claimed that they were direct descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who escaped the city's destruction and traveled with his kin to Italy to start afresh. Augustus, the first Roman emperor, visited Troy in 20 BC. Both Julius Caesar, before him, and the emperor Constantine, three centuries later, contemplated building a new Roman capital on the site.
Ilion survived after the Roman empire in the West had fallen to barbarian tribes in the fifth century AD. But after 1200 AD, when the site seems finally to have been abandoned, Troy evaporated into the mists of myth. Even as the Iliad itself was being preserved through the efforts of scholars and scribes in Byzantium (the inheritor of the eastern Roman empire), the landscape associated with it was gradually forgotten. The eighteenth century, which saw an increase in travel to the eastern Mediterranean, brought aristocratic memoirists like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and amateur antiquarians like her compatriot Robert Wood (1716–1771) to the broader region of the Troad. They found—or imagined they found—topographical details that matched those in the texts of the Iliad. Lady Montagu remarks on the pleasure she took "in seeing the valley where I imagined the famous duel of Menelaos and Paris had been fought, and where the greatest city in the world was situated." She professes admiration for "the exact geography of Homer, whom I had in my hand. Almost every epithet he gives to a mountain or plain is still just for it." Wood's tour resulted in the posthumously published, widely read Essay upon the Original Genius and Writings of Homer: With a Comparative View of the Ancient and Present State of the Troade (1775). Insisting on the exactness of Homeric descriptions, whether of wind directions or landscape, Wood concluded that "stript of all poetical embellishments" the Iliad contained "in general a consistent narrative of military events, connected and supported by that due coincidence of the circumstances of time and place which History requires."
Despite such on-site observations, most scholars in the early nineteenth century remained skeptical about whether real historical events lay behind the stories of the Greek heroic age. The British historian George Grote (1794–1871) in his influential twelve-volume History of Greece chose 776 BC—the traditional date for the founding of the Olympic games—as the beginning of reliably recorded history. Within thirty years of the publication of his first two volumes (1846), Grote was proved mistaken: the Homeric epics, which he had spurned as evidence, emerged as more trustworthy guides to the past than had been imagined. Civilizations with features described by Homeric poetry, going back to seven centuries before Grote's starting date for Greek history, were now laid bare.
It was the labor of amateurs, rather than academics, that paved the way to a new understanding of the Iliad's historicity. The first, Frank Calvert (1828–1908), worked as a businessman and representative of British and American interests in Ottoman-ruled Asia Minor during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. A passionate, self-taught antiquarian, he had concluded from intimate acquaintance with the landscape that the mound (tell) of Hisarlik, a few miles from the sea, was the most likely location of Homer's Troy. He managed to buy a portion of the area, but officials of the British Museum turned down his requests for the necessary further funding, and Calvert abandoned the project after a few trial digs in 1865. Always at the service of interested travelers, Calvert in August 1868 explained his theories to a visiting German explorer, Heinrich Schliemann (1822–1890). Another self-educated amateur, Schliemann was a visionary and wealthy entrepreneur who had forged his own way, starting out as a poor office boy (among his other profitable endeavors, he had sold provisions to miners during the California gold rush and war supplies to armies in the Crimea). He was also a tireless, if not downright mendacious, self-promoter, prone to manipulate facts to his own advantage. Whatever the truth or fantasy in Schliemann's autobiographical "recollections"—that he had been inspired to rediscover Troy as a boy, upon seeing a picture book of the saga, or hearing a drunken miller recite Homeric verses in Greek—there is no doubt that it was his resources and persistence that finally uncovered the remains of a great city at Hisarlik.
Starting in October 1871 and for the next two years, Schliemann excavated the mound of Hisarlik, digging relentlessly to the lowest level. As he was more or less inventing archaeological practice—an art still in its infancy—he did not take care to record the layout of higher strata on the site, destroying valuable clues in the process. Calvert correctly deduced from the presence of stone rather than bronze artifacts that Schliemann's widely heralded discovery of the "city of Priam" in fact revealed a much older phase of habitation. Subsequent investigations by Schliemann, up to his death in 1890, then for a season (1893–1894) by his successor Wilhelm Dörpfeld, and from 1932 to 1938 by the American archaeologist Carl Blegen, exposed a total of nine layers and nearly fifty sublayers. The earliest layer, "Troy I," was occupied in the Early Bronze Age, around 3000 BC. "Troy II," which Schliemann had thought to be contemporaneous with the Iliad's events, is in fact a thousand years older than the estimated period of the Trojan War. If the city underwent siege and destruction, as described by Homeric poetry, the likeliest stages for it are the levels designated "Troy VI" (1800–1275 BC) and "Troy VII" (1275–1100 BC). Archaeologists believe that during the latter period, in particular, many more people took refuge inside the defensive walls of the upper town, having for some reason abandoned the lower. There are no inscriptions to pinpoint this site as the place that the Greeks destroyed. But the era would match ancient calculations for the period of the war, and the physical remains are suggestively reminiscent of details in the Iliad. Moreover, excavations led by Manfred Korfmann of Tübingen University from 1995 until his death in 2005, have now shown that the upper city on the site (which critics had long dismissed as being too small for the Homeric Troy) was merely a fraction of a much more extensive settlement, capable of sustaining a population of nearly ten thousand.
If the mound at Hisarlik can now be recognized as having concealed a series of fortified citadels that resemble those known from the ancient Near East, complete with surrounding lower town, there is also further evidence that might explain why a war could have been fought over this place. The major political force in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) in the second millennium BC was the Hittite empire, centered on Hattusa (now Bögasköy, near modern Ankara). Continuing archaeological work, combined with increasing knowledge of the ancient Hittite language (from texts first deciphered in the early twentieth century) have produced a picture of a wide-reaching, highly organized imperial power with connections extending as far as the Levant and Egypt.
Troy, it appears, was a vassal state. Hittite official documents mention Taruwisa and Wilusa, which closely match the Greek words used, apparently as synonyms, for the besieged city in the Iliad: Troiê and (w)Ilios (traces of an original initial "w" sound can be detected in the Iliad's verses). Even more intriguing, a royal treaty of King Muwattalli II (circa 1290–1272 BC) pledges support for one Alaksandu of Wilusa—possibly a Hittite form of the Greek name Alexander (another name for the Trojan warrior Paris), although the document was written a century before the putative date of the war that this son of Priam caused by abducting the Greek queen Helen. The Hittite texts also refer to Ahhiyawa. This term was probably borrowed from one of the words early Greeks used to describe themselves: Achaioi. Unfortunately, it remains unclear where the Hittites located the people thus named, whether further down the coast of Asia Minor (near ancient Miletus), on offshore islands like Lesbos, or on the other side of the Aegean (mainland Greece). Nor is the precise relationship of Ahhiyawa to Trojans specified: were they considered enemies, neighbors, or a distant power?
Troy must have been an important ally, given its strategic location in ancient times on the seacoast, before accumulated silt pushed the shoreline farther from the city. An attack could well have provoked a defensive response from a number of cities in the Hittite sphere of influence throughout western Asia Minor. The Iliad, in fact, represents the number of far-flung Trojan allies as far outnumbering fighters from the city itself and, since they speak many languages, harder to control than the unified Greek forces (2.803–4).
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